On Sept. 13, 2015, John Miller’s eyes were filled with tears. The Walker Cup captain, affectionately nicknamed “Spider,” had just watched his 10-man U.S. squad get walloped at Royal Lytham and at the closing ceremony witnessed the cup return to the Great Britain and Ireland side.
“You come over and you have high hopes and expectations, and you’re full of confidence,” Miller said, “and we were beaten.”
The two years that followed were filled with tough questions – What went wrong for the stacked U.S. squad? How many mid-amateurs should be on the team? Should the USGA’s secretive selection process be altered?
One year, 11 months and 28 days later, there were tears again. But this time, they were of joy. In his second and final stint as captain, Miller led the Americans to convincing redemption: a 19-6 rout of the GB&I side at Los Angeles Country Club.
“I don’t mind bringing up two years ago because that was such a crucial part of our win this week,” said Maverick McNealy, the only returning player from that losing U.S. squad in 2015. “It was, for me personally, a huge fire in my belly; I woke up every morning and (my) first thought (when the) alarm goes off, ‘Let’s freaking do this.’ I was so fired up and ready to play and I wanted it so badly for these guys. … There was plenty of criticism of a lot of things from two years ago. A lot of questions were asked about a lot of things, and I really, really hope we answered those questions this week.”
They did. Emphatically.
The American victory was just shy of the all-time Walker Cup record for margin of victory – the U.S. won 19-5 in 1993 at Interlachen, and that year rain washed out the opening foursomes session, so 20 of the 24 points available were via the singles format. But for the first time in the history of the biennial competition, more than two teammates compiled 4-0 records: McNealy, Doug Ghim and Collin Morikawa.
(Before this year, three times had a pair of Americans went 4-0 in the Walker Cup, including most recently Peter Uihlein and Rickie Fowler in 2009.)
“I remember watching the Walker Cup when I was in middle school and elementary school, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, maybe one day I might get there, but that would be crazy,’” said Ghim, who two weeks earlier finished runner-up in the U.S. Amateur at Riviera. “And then to think that I’m standing here and won all four matches, it’s just a dream come true.”
Make no mistake, though; this was no three-man show. Nine of the 10 American players earned at least a point, including mid-amateur Stewart Hagestad, an LACC member who won his final singles match for the Americans’ 13th point, and 18-year-old Norman Xiong, who went 3-0-1 and earned the decisive half-point in the closing singles session.
It was Xiong who teamed with Morikawa for the very first U.S. point, a Walker Cup-record 8-and-7 foursomes victory over Alfie Plant and Harry Ellis, who were thought to be GB&I’s best foursomes pairing. Xiong and Morikawa won twice in foursomes, as did McNealy and Ghim.
Overall, the U.S. went 5-3 in the format, which it historically has struggled in, losing six straight Walker Cup foursomes sessions before a 2-2 tie in this year’s opening foursomes portion.
The keys to the foursomes turnaround? Miller and McNealy talked all week about the importance of each player being in their own thoughts. Two years ago, there was too much caucusing on tee boxes. At LACC, many a times one U.S. player was already down the fairway as his teammate hit the tee shot.
And then there was the matching of personalities by Miller and team manager Robby Zalzneck, who spent time earlier in the week studying how each player interacted with each other.
“That was the difference maker,” McNealy said, “because when you’re standing on that first tee and your insides are turning inside out and you’ve got a two-and-a-half-footer to win the hole, who is the guy that’s going to calm you down the most or bring you up the most?”
There’s no questioning the impact McNealy had on the U.S. squad. The 22-year-old Stanford grad, who will make his pro debut at the Safeway Open in October, was essentially an assistant captain, and it was a speech he gave to the team Tuesday night that provided a spark. The message: Flip the switch, and do it early.
In 2015, that didn’t happen; the Americans were overwhelmed and in unknown territory could never grab momentum. But even before this year’s matches began, the U.S. “thoroughbreds,” as Miller called them, were raring and ready to go.
Then on the afternoon of the first day, an extra switch got flipped. At one point in Day 1’s eight-match singles portion, the GB&I led in five matches. But Xiong, Braden Thornberry and Will Zalatoris went from being down on the back nine to winning their matches, and the U.S. rallied to take six of the eight singles contests to enter Sunday with a comfortable 8-4 advantage.
“The momentum just started to switch,” said Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre, “and once you’re going against the tide, it’s hard to get back.”
GB&I captain Andy Ingram, who was a late fill-in after initial captain Craig Watson stepped down following the death of his sister, said the length of the course proved to be the biggest problem for his guys. Just two GB&I players earned more than two points: Englishmen Jack Singh Brar and Scott Gregory.
“Our guys aren’t used to playing courses this long,” Ingram said. “A couple of them said to me, ‘I need to be longer, I need to hit it longer, I’m going to work on that this winter.’”
There is nothing left to work on for Miller, however. The 67-year-old Bloomington, Ind., native’s job is done. After losing two Walker Cups – he went 2-1 as a player in the Americans’ 1999 defeat at Nairn Golf Club – Miller is “retiring to the range until further notice.”
When asked to describe their captain in one word, the undefeated American players wasted no time.
“Gracious,” Ghim said.
“Genuine,” followed McNealy.
“Happy,” Morikawa added.
“Very happy,” Miller interjected.
Continued Morikawa: “Simple. Straightforward. Loving. And the absolute best.”
Just like his team.
“Captain Miller is in the history books for his win this week. This team is in the history books for our win this week,” McNealy said. “And I think that was a huge statement for United States of America amateur golf.”